Posted by: reformedmusings | March 26, 2008

Citizens or Subjects?

The 2nd Amendment in the US Bill of Rights reads:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

The UK newspaper The Times published this interesting article: Britain is world’s 7th most stable and prosperous nation (HT: Drudge Report). The US finished at #22 on that same list. Generally I’d say, “So what?” and move on. But then I saw this as one of the reasons that the US finished so far down the list:

Mr Le Mière said that the US had fallen down the scale, although it still scored an average of 93 out of 100, partly because of the proliferation of small arms owned by Americans… (my bold)

Well, isn’t that special. One of the first and most basic freedoms laid out in our Constitution’s Bill of Rights somehow reduces our stability? Gosh, the Founding Fathers thought exactly the opposite. Have times changed so much? Not hardly.

Let’s consider the difference between two words: citizen and subject. In the US, we proudly call ourselves “citizens.” That’s because we believe that the government exists solely by the consent of the governed–of the people, by the people, and for the people as President Lincoln said at Gettysburg. The Founding Fathers stated most clearly in the Declaration of Independence that God gave the people inalienable rights. By the consent of the governed, we, in turn, grant the government some powers with which to work to the common good. The US Constitution specifically limits those powers under the general categories of establishing justice, a common defense, interstate commerce and relations, and international relations. You can probably think of few cabinet-level departments that go well beyond those bounds.

The Constitution itself primarily delineates the limited powers of the government granted by the people. Enumerating (but not exhaustively) key rights of the people and the states, thereby limiting the power of the federal government, was the purpose of the Bill of Rights. Commentators at the time said that the Constitution would never have been ratified without the Bill of Rights coming right behind it. Especially interesting are the two most ignored of those amendments: the ninth and tenth which explicitly limit the power of the federal government to that stated in the Constitution, retaining (not granting) all other rights for the people and the states.

Subjects, on the other hand, are granted rights and privileges by their monarch, dictator, an absolute ruler by some other title, or a government often referred to as the State. The power resides in the State, not in the subjects. The State tells the subjects what rights they will have and enforces that by the sword. A universal truth is that the government which has the power to grant rights also has the power to take them away. History is strewn with the human wreckage wrought by States–former subjects crushed under the boot of tyranny. Sometimes that tyranny is subtle, sometimes not. Sometimes the perception of safety is mistaken for freedom. That mistake is seldom enduring.

So what has this to do with the right to keep and bear arms? One of the best quotes on the subject come from Supreme Court Justice Joseph A. Story (1799-1845). An extremely bright individual, Joseph Story was the youngest justice ever appointed to the US Supreme Court. He wrote the outstanding Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States just one generation after the ratification of the Constitution. In his comment on the 2nd Amendment, Justice Story said:

The right of the citizens to keep and bear arms has justly been considered, as the palladium of the liberties of a republic; since it offers a strong moral check against the usurpation and arbitrary power of rulers; and will generally, even if these are successful in the first instance, enable the people to resist and triumph over them.

Here Justice Story correctly observed that this right is the guarantor of all the others. This agrees perfectly with the sentiment of the founding fathers. Thomas Jefferson, the initial drafter of the Declaration of Independence, wrote:

No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms. The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government. (Thomas Jefferson Papers, p. 334)

General George Washington, President of the Constitutional Convention and the first US President, observed:

The very atmosphere of firearms anywhere and everywhere restrains evil interference – they deserve a place of honor with all that’s good.

And Alexander Hamilton, one of the authors of The Federalist Papers which helped the Constitution gain ratification, wrote:

The best we can hope for concerning the people at large is that they be properly armed. (The Federalist Papers, pp. 184-188)

Strong words by wise men. How could they and others say these things? Because “the people” protected in the 2nd Amendment were the very same “the people” to whom the1st Amendment guarantees the right to their religion, free assembly, and free press; “the people” in the fourth protected against illicit search and seizure; and “the people” retaining all powers by way of the 9th and 10th Amendments not specifically granted to the federal government. If the 1st Amendment were treated or interpreted in the same way that some want to (and do in places like Washington DC, New York City, Chicago, California, etc.) curtail the 2nd Amendment, this blog wouldn’t survive; no private blogs, no private TV, radio, newspaper, Internet, etc., would exist without strict government control over its content. Think the Great Firewall of China.

Although the right of the people to keep and bear arms appears in the 2nd Amendment, it is often called “the first freedom” because without it, all the others are ripe for the taking by criminals and other enemies of liberty. History proves that without exception.

I remember reading an article once by a fellow (I wish I remembered his name) whose ancestors lived and fought during the American Revolution. He remarked that the first four amendments in the Bill of Rights redressed and prevented the four great ills visited upon his family by the British government. The British limited the exercise of non-Anglican religion, forbade a free press and public assembly, confiscated their privately-owned firearms (or tried to), forcibly quartered occupying British soldiers in their home, and searched homes and persons without warrants or any due process. Note carefully that it was ultimately the hidden, private firearms that the American colonists used to expel the British, end the tyranny of the monarchy over America, and establish liberty in our republic. So, the first four amendments in the Bill of Rights don’t appear there by accident.

Thus when I read that outsiders disparage the stability of the United States based largely on their prejudice against private firearms ownership, I must nod my head knowing that the opposite is demonstrably true. If the liberty of the people of the United States of America outlasts others around the world, it will be because our civil liberty as expressed in our freedom to keep and bear arms made it so by securing all the other liberties. Our private firearms, in addition to putting a damper on crime and providing for the defense of ourselves and our families against criminals that would harm us, ensures that the consent of the governed remains the rule of the land. If liberty ever fails in these United States, it will be ultimately because we would have given up our arms and lost the ability to assert or retain our God-given inalienable rights.

I pray that the US Supreme Court considers these things as they discuss the current case before them on the meaning and importance of our civil rights expressed in and protected by the 2nd Amendment.



  1. […] New York’s anti-freedom firearm laws attempt to destroy their subjects’ 2nd Amendment civil liberties. […]

  2. […] understood then, and those who believe in their work as originally intended understand now, that citizens must take personally responsibility for their safety and freedoms. They knew and we know that like fire, government is a dangerous servant and a fearful master. One […]

  3. […] proficient, and stay safe. Take responsibility for your freedom and for your family’s safety. Be a citizen, not a subject. Your Constitution not only recognizes that right, it depends on your exercising that right to […]

  4. […] to our Founding Fathers, the 2nd Amendment guaranteed that no American would ever be disarmed, and would serve as protection against tyranny. Every individual has a God-given right to defend themselves and their […]


%d bloggers like this: